F1 Season preview 2013

Regulatory stability dictates that cars will not change greatly this season, but other aspects of the sport's fabric look very different. The challenge, though, remains the same:

Can anybody prevent Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull annexing their fourth consecutive titles?

With Nigel Roebuck and Anthony Davidson

NR Well, it's January 24, and snowing like hell back home, but here we are in the Daytona paddock, sitting in the sun, chewing the fat about the coming season...

AD Yes, not too bad, is it?! This is my first race since the Le Mans accident, and also my first time in Daytona. I love everything about it, not just the weather...

NR F1 seems a world away, but we're nearing the start of pre-season testing: here and now, before any of the cars have turned a wheel, who are you tipping for the 2013 World Championship?

AD Sebastian Vettel. I know it's boring, considering he's won it the last three years, but that's what I think will happen — mainly because the rules haven't changed that much, and you can still have quite a powerful blown diffuser. Red Bull and Adrian Newey are the masters of designing it — it's such a tricky thing to get right — and Vettel's the master of driving it.

NR Of course, this will be the last year for the blown floor...

AD Yes — and if we were talking about the 2014 season, when the cars will be totally different, with the V6 turbo engine, and so on, I'd be saying the championship was wide open. But the blown floor requires a different style of driving, and Vettel's got it.

NR More than Webber, apparently. I thought it significant that early last season, when the rules relating to the blown floor had changed and Red Bull was pretty much without it, Mark more than held his own against Seb.

AD Yes, he did — and then Red Bull found the secret again, and Seb was off on his own. Obviously he's very quick, anyway, but the technique needed to bring out the best in the blown floor — the complete opposite of what you'd do instinctively — brings out the best in him, too.

NR Adrian just plays the game better than anyone else, doesn't he? He's brilliant at taking things to the edge, finding loopholes that others can't, and so on. And perhaps he has more free rein with Red Bull than with other teams he's worked for.

AD Yes, there might be something in that. I'll be interested to see how Mark goes, relative to Seb, and fortunately he won't be fazed by what Helmut Marko has been saying about him — that interview horrified me...

NR Well, he's been trying to get rid of Webber for years. The main reason Mark's still there is his excellent relationship with (Dietrich) Mateschitz, who's always been loyal to him.

AD The interview with Marko was appalling! In belittling Webber I don't think he was trying to gee Mark up at all — he was just being deliberately destructive, trying to break him mentally...

NR Well, that just shows how little he knows about Mark, doesn't it?

AD Absolutely! He's the most resilient driver I've ever seen in F1. You're not going to break him by telling him he's fragile — he's so clearly not — so why bother trying? Mark's accustomed to a hostile environment, and he's cool with that, whereas many a driver would have fallen by the wayside long ago. Vettel, on the other hand, is one of those drivers who really needs the love from his team — if he'd endured the sort of comments coming at him, week after week, that Marko's been throwing at Webber, it would have had a really destructive effect on him.

NR Never going to happen, though, is it? Marko thinks Vettel's the Second Messiah. When I read the interview, I wondered if Webber had begun to regret not going to Ferrari — although I remember him saying he could see what Alonso was struggling with every weekend...

AD Exactly, and where Mark is, he's got the fastest car, which is what every driver wants above all — even if he's got people in the team slagging him off! If you've got the fastest car, and you're on top of your game — or the other guy falters — you're there to take the glory. In 2010 it almost worked out for Mark and you never know, it could happen again — but it's going to be tough, because Vettel's in his prime. He might get better, in terms of becoming a more rounded driver, in the Alonso sense, but I doubt he's going to get any faster. In terms of pure speed, he's one of the top three, with Alonso and Hamilton.

NR OK, so you think Seb's the likely World Champion again. When it comes to opposition for Red Bull, I suppose we're looking at the usual suspects — Ferrari and McLaren, with Lotus in the mix, too. Twice in the last three years Alonso almost took the title — and this year's Ferrari has to be more competitive than the last one.

AD You'd assume so, wouldn't you? Fernando's an absolutely extraordinary racing driver, I think — one of the greats. In 2012 he made only one mistake, at Suzuka, and even that wasn't clear-cut, in my opinion, because Raikkonen was behind, and had his nose on the outside.

NR Something that impressed me was that, because the Ferrari was poor in qualifying, Alonso had a lot of overtaking to do most weekends, and he did it so cleanly, without running into people all the time.

AD I know! That's why everyone made so much of Suzuka. Fernando's got it all, hasn't he? He's got... it... all. When he needs to turn it on he's got the feistiness of Lewis, when he needs to look after the car he's got the smoothness of Jenson, and when it's make or break he's got the qualifying speed of Sebastian.

NR And he's so bright, so savvy — out of the car, as well as in it. There must have been so many times when he felt disheartened, yet publicly he maintained this resolute optimism...

AD Yes, and I don't know how he did it. Fernando plays the media so well, and that's an important part of being a modern-day Fl driver. More than anything, though, I couldn't get over the level of performance he got from a bad car — which wasn't something we saw from Vettel at the beginning of last year, when Red Bull was up against it.

You always get 100 per cent from Alonso. Look at someone like Raikkonen. In Abu Dhabi he only came alive when he got into the lead and had a sniff of victory, because that's the way Kimi is: put him in front, and he'll win a race — but put him in seventh or eighth, in a poor car...

No one else could have done what Fernando did, I'm sure of that. Ask me who the fastest driver is, and I'd probably say Lewis, or maybe Sebastian — but when you talk about who's the best, you've got to look at every single avenue, in which case I'd say Fernando, without doubt.

NR Massa came within an ace of losing his drive, but redeemed himself towards the end of 2012. There's no escaping the fact that he was pretty lamentable for most of last season, but in the final races he began to look like his old, pre-accident, self again.

AD Yes, and if he can keep that momentum I think he'll do well this year — Ferrari needs to have two drivers scoring points. I was pleased when Massa started to get it together again, because no one likes to see a driver so beaten down mentally — and he was crushed, wasn't he?

Felipe's one of those drivers who's a bit fragile mentally, and needs an arm around him— let's face it, after a series of poor races, with a team-mate as relentless and ruthless as Fernando, anyone would have his head down, and that could always be his downfall.

NR On to McLaren — where things have changed. I'm fascinated to see how Button will respond to being unequivocal team leader. Some reckon that to get the best out of a driver you need the impetus of a really strong team-mate, but perhaps that depends on the temperament of the individual driver: I suspect Jenson will thrive in his new role.

AD Yes, he could well do — but it can go two ways. If he's at the same level as last year, not always firing on all cylinders, McLaren is really going to miss Lewis. But having said that, it could be beneficial for Jenson because he no longer has the pressure of Lewis to affect him — and won't be tempted perhaps to over-drive on a given weekend. If you've no direct competition, your confidence levels rise: you don't hustle the car as much, it all comes a bit easier — and the lap times fall.

For any driver the frustration comes when your team-mate's going quicker than you are — and when that guy is Lewis, it's going to happen a lot! No matter how strong you are — and Jenson's one of the toughest mentally out there — you're going to end up looking at the other guy's data and trying to do something different, which might not be natural to you. Sometimes when you relax and let it come to you a bit more — as Jenson did at Spa last year — the lap times are there for you.

NR Frankly, I was amazed that McLaren — with Halkenberg available — signed Perez, although potentially there were commercial advantages...

AD Yes — and we all know that's probably what led to the decision. We're in difficult times, no question about it, but... I don't think it's an ideal driver line-up for McLaren, quite honestly.

NR Perez had his moments last year, but the jury's still out, I think. Is he going to be enough of a spur for Button?

AD No. For his sake, I hope I'm proven wrong — like I was about Kimi, saying it would take him time to get up to speed! You don't always get it right, but Perez needs to prove himself in qualifying, for one thing.

Jenson — at his best — is as fast as anyone, but a team at McLaren's level needs two top drivers, so that when one of them isn't quite on the pace, you've got a wing man to get the result. Look at last year: when Lewis was off, as at Spa, Jenson was there; when Jenson was in trouble, like in Montreal, Lewis did the job. It worked brilliantly — and several times, of course, they were both right there.

Lewis's leaving has considerably diluted the McLaren line-up. You can't rely on just one driver to do the business for you — as Ferrari showed last year...

NR Certainly Perez was impressive at times — but it always seemed to be when he was on different tyres from everyone else at a particular stage of the race, as at Monza...

AD Yes, that's right. There are two things here: ultimate lap times, ballsy driving — and looking after tyres well. That's a big part of Fl today, and certainly Perez has got it mastered, but deep down we all know it's not as impressive as ultimate lap times.

NR What struck me last year was that, after he'd signed the McLaren contract, you wouldn't have known he was at the races. At Sauber they were pretty disappointed by that...

AD I'm not surprised — that car was usually ? bloody good, and you've got to ask yourself, 'What could Alonso have done with it?' Personally, I think that in the Sauber Fernando would probably have been World Champion, because often it was quicker than the Ferrari, and once you start thinking of it like that, Perez doesn't look that amazing, does he?

NR Anyway, McLaren doesn't have Hamilton any more — and Mercedes does. That's been the big change over the winter, and endless reasons — money, more commercial freedom, new challenge — have been put forward for Lewis's decision to move...

AD It's a fascinating prospect, isn't it? Lewis can probably drag another two or three tenths out of the car over Rosberg — but, having said that, it'll be interesting to see what effect his presence will have on Nico: I've always thought of him as a bit of an enigma, but now we'll find out how mentally tough he really is, up against one of the very strongest in the business.

Actually, I don't see Rosberg being affected by Hamilton in the way someone might be as, say, Alonso's team-mate: I think anyone would find that daunting. I see Lewis having the sort of relationship with Nico that he had with Jenson — it'll be harmonious within the team, I'm sure, but Nico might have to cope with the thought that, 'Every time I get in this car, the other guy is going to go faster...'

Getting your head around that is bloody difficult, and this is crunch time for Rosberg, but... he might surprise us all. If Lewis's arrival makes him step up every weekend to how he drove in China last year... he was in a league of his own there, easily on pole, left everyone behind in the race — and I don't think it was because the car was so great: Nico found the magic that weekend, so we know his capabilities...

NR What strikes you about Mercedes, though, is that there is so much going on. All this political upheaval immediately before the start of the season... not what Lewis would have wanted...

AD Couldn't agree more. On the face of it, the management structure does seem a bit top-heavy, and I'm intrigued to see what Lewis makes of it all. I think he might have a season similar to the one with McLaren in 2009, where — on his day, with the car running sweetly — he might drag a win out of it, but I'll be surprised if the Mercedes is anything like the car he had under him last year.

NR It could be difficult for Lewis — with his pure racer's mentality — to be in a car not quitethere on pace...

AD Yes, but he's one of those guys who just loves driving, isn't he? Think of Korea, where he had a damaged car late on, but fought tooth and nail for the last point, and got it. Apart from Austin, where he beat Vettel, that was probably the Lewis race that I enjoyed the most.

NR Sure, but once the novelty of being at Mercedes-Benz — in a different team — wears off...

AD Yeah, you're right. In '09 McLaren started off diabolically, but by the end of the year the team was winning races. That's one thing, but if you have a whole season of... averageness, it'll start to drain the batteries, however much you're being paid.

NR Let's move on to Lotus, widely considered the dark horse — which perhaps sells them short. The car was sometimes very strong last year, and I thought Raikkonen — in his comeback season — drove way better than in his last couple of seasons with Ferrari...

AD He certainly did. He started the year more strongly than many expected, myself included, and got better as it went on, not least in his racecraft. Sometimes we saw the Kimi of old — by which I mean the McLaren days, rather than, as you say, the last two years with Ferrari, where he was already switching off. It looks like he's got the bit between his teeth again.

NR It's always been said of Kimi that the only thing he lacks is dedication, but on the other hand in a way that's also what people love about him — that he's a maverick, and in a PR-controlled environment like Fl that is very attractive...

AD Oh, yeah! I love him for it, too — but I'm also frustrated by it, because so much potential is being wasted. If Kimi had the work ethic of a Schumacher, my God, you'd have an incredible driver. He says he was born in the wrong era, and he's right — he should have been an F1 driver in the '70s. Today there's nowhere to hide — you can't not be analytical, dedicated, disciplined and so on. You can't rely solely on natural ability any more, which is probably sad for fans to hear, but facts are facts: it's become a very technological sport. When Kimi stops, we're going to miss him because I don't think there will be any more like him.

NR What do we make of Grosjean? Clearly he's very quick, but some of his errors of judgment — particularly early in the race — I found quite disturbing. At Spa, where he tanked into Hamilton, it was as if he hadn't seen Lewis, as if he had the track to himself. A lot of people got on his case, and then the ban at Monza shook his confidence...

AD Yes, it did. Grosjean's certainly got qualifying sorted — look how many times he outpaced Kimi — but he did lose confidence after the fall-out from Spa, and when that happens it's hard to keep your speed. I saw it with Takuma Sato at Honda: he arrived as quite a wild driver, but the more the team tried to calm him down, the slower he became — there were fewer mistakes, yes, but he wasn't as quick...

Romain might be teetering on the edge of that. He's an intelligent lad and there was nothing malicious in any of the incidents — I think it was just clumsiness, honestly, but still it's scary to be on the grid with someone like that. If he was arrogant, you'd despise him, but he isn't — he's a good guy and I hope he can smooth out the rough edges, because he's certainly got the speed.

NR As also has Hulkenberg. To me, he looks like the real deal: I thought he had chances with McLaren or Ferrari, but as it is he's with Sauber, perhaps not for long...

AD I think we can expect some fireworks from Halkenberg. We saw what he was capable of with Force India, a similar package. On days when tyre wear is an issue — the Sauber looks after its tyres very well — he can certainly pick up the pieces if the top teams fall, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do at circuits where he really thrives, like Interlagos.

Nico's a bit similar to Grosjean — still a bit rough around the edges, although not as much as Romain — but Sauber will be good for him, in terms of coming of age. At Force India he and di Resta were pretty evenly matched — in some ways there wasn't room for the two of them — but towards the end of the year he definitely had the upper hand.

NR I got the impression that Paul was severely knocked by not being picked up by one of the major teams for 2013 — McLaren, perhaps. Mind you, it's not always easy to tell from his expression whether he's happy or sad...

AD Yes, he's a very serious lad, isn't he? You get the impression he's quite hard on himself. He was up against a tough opponent — Halkenberg's a natural seat-of-the-pants driver, whereas Paul's perhaps more of a worker — and on the days when it's not coming easily that can get your head down.

Then again, remember Singapore: Nico had shown his speed, and was coming into his own — but Paul was exceptional there. It was his best drive to date and, if there are more like that, we can expect some really good results. Maybe it's similar to the Jenson/Lewis scenario: with the other guy not there any more, giving him heaps of pressure, perhaps we'll see more of an air of lightness about him. Paul's going to be the clear number one, whoever's eventually alongside him, and this is the year when it should come good for him — if it doesn't, he'll have a big problem...

NR Just going back to Sauber for a second, it's sad that Kobayashi has lost his drive — and a worrying indication of how financially close to the bone F1 is at the moment. Not only is he out, but so also are Kovalainen and Glock. They should all be there on merit — and all have beenreplaced by rookies with a budget.

AD Well, you're right, it is worrying. (Esteban) Gutierrez is in at Sauber, for example, and let's not beat about the bush, he's there because of money. He seems like a nice guy, but do I expect him to be a long-term feature in Fl? No. I can see him having one year with the team, then the money freight train will continue to roll.

NR Speaking of money freight trains, there's little doubt as to why Maldonado was originally signed by Williams, but he's more than just another 'pay driver', isn't he? He is quick...

AD Is he ever! I see Maldonado as a feistier version of Grosjean, but, because he's a paying driver, he's more secure — which means that calming him down is going to be even harder! I expect him to be bloody fast, and right up there on some of his favourite circuits, like Monaco and Singapore. Pastor's good at tracks where you have to drag the car around, and he'll cause a few surprises again — and lose his rag many times, too. I enjoy him — he's a character, and whatever you say about him you can't ignore his speed.

NR Williams also seems to be really high on Bottas, but it's probably a bit too early to say much...

AD Yes, it is. All we can say is that he went about 'Friday driving' in a very professional way. He didn't have much time in the car, so he did well — but, speaking from experience, Fridays are very different from a race weekend. Bottas has a long way to go — and he's up against a formidable driver in Maldonado, who on his day will probably always have the upper hand.

NR Toro Rosso? They're sticking with Ricciardo and Vergne, who'll be hoping for a somewhat better car than they had in 2012...

AD I'm intrigued to see what Ricciardo can do. A young driver, under the Red Bull Young Driver programme, can easily become arrogant, but it hasn't affected him — and he's delivered, too. I thought Vergne was going to be a tougher opponent for him, but it didn't really happen: whatever he threw at his teammate, Daniel had an answer, and his qualifying performance in Bahrain — where he started sixth — amazed me. I think he'll have a good year — and that he'll be alongside Vettel at Red Bull in 2014...

NR That leaves us with Caterham and Marussia. I was amazed that Caterham, with Renault engines, KERS and all the rest of it, didn't improve significantly last year...

AD I agree. It was a mystery to me, and I think it was to them, as well. The performance they were expecting wasn't there. The team's only saving grace was that it had Kovalainen — and now he's gone. As we've said, we're not living in ideal financial times, but you need experience, especially when you're a new team, to have some idea of exactly where you are. Caterham is just surviving and that doesn't turn me on. I'll say no more...

NR (Charles) Pic moves there this year, from Marussia. He often looked pretty handy in 2012, I thought...

AD Yes, he did — he could sometimes hold his own against Glock, although Timo was the guy you'd put your money on at most races, and now, like Heikki, he's stopped. In that respect, it's the same story as Caterham. I thought Marussia was on the up, but it'll be tough with two raw rookies, in Chilton and Razia. Let's see how they go — some drivers improve when they get to Fl, and some find it a bit too much. It's a crying shame, though, that the likes of Kobayashi, Kovalainen and Glock aren't there. It's not the way it should be, but it's a sign of the times and I hope the fans understand that.

At the front of the grid, though, I'm sure the show will be as good as ever. Logically, this season should start as the last one ended, with close competition, and certain teams getting it right on certain weekends. For me, the most fascinating aspects are that Alonso should have a more competitive Ferrari — and Hamilton won't be in a McLaren...